Cumberland MLA Doyle Vermette is “at a loss” after Bill No. 618 — the Saskatchewan Strategy for Suicide Prevention Act — was voted down on Friday.
The proposed act was introduced in November by Vermette, who is also the NDP critic for northern affairs.
“So many lives in our province, particularly in the North, have been devastated by the death of a loved one because of suicide.” Vermette said.
“Many of those people joined us here in the legislature to call on the government to act. How am I to explain to those families this government’s unwillingness to do what is so badly needed right now?”
Rural and Remote Health Minister Warren Kaeding released Pillars for Life: The Saskatchewan Suicide Prevention Plan in May. The province’s plan outlines a collaborative approach to suicide prevention.
The province’s suicide-prevention plan states it will co-ordinate activities to promote life and reduce risk factors related to suicide in Saskatchewan.
The NDP said in a statement to the press that no additional funding is attached and called it, “wholly inadequate to save lives.”
“With this cynical, partisan move, the Saskatchewan Party has truly let down the families who have pushed for real action on this issue,” provincial NDP Leader Ryan Meili said.
“Many of those people joined us here in the legislature to call on the government to act. How am I to explain to those families this government’s unwillingness to do what is so badly needed right now?” Doyle Vermette.
Saskatchewan Party members voted unanimously against the measure in another blow to an initiative Vermette has brought forward twice in the past.
Vermette has already introduced two bills calling for the government to implement a suicide strategy, but this was the first time the NDP was able to bring the measure to a vote.
Suicide is the leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 49 in northern Saskatchewan.
“We’ve had so many suicides, so many young people, so many attempts. We introduced a bill two years back and then we reintroduced it as Bill 618 recently, in 2019, after the original died on the order paper,” Vermette told Canada’s National Observer in May.
Around 4,000 people die by suicide yearly in Canada. Suicide remains the second leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 29 in Canada.
In Saskatchewan, an average of 144 people die by suicide each year and between 2005 and 2019, more than 2,200 people in Saskatchewan died by suicide according to data from the Saskatchewan Coroners Service.
Kaeding said the government's action plan released in May would address those issues.
“Mental health continues to be a high priority for our government, our health system and our communities,” Kaeding said in a statement at the time.
“This plan will guide activities specific to suicide prevention based on Saskatchewan’s context. It was informed by careful consideration of approaches across the country and international best practice.”
Suicide in correctional institutions
In March, Curtis McKenzie, a 27-year-old member of Lac La Ronge Indian Band, took his own life while at Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert.
According to the most recent national data available from the annual report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator (2018-19), Indigenous offenders are “over-represented” in the number of incidents of attempted suicide in correctional facilities, accounting for 39 per cent of all such incidents in the past 10 years.
The federal inmate population in Canada increased 1.2 per cent since 2010, while the Indigenous inmate population increased by 52.1 per cent.
Northern Saskatchewan high risk
Northwest Saskatchewan has especially high rates of death by suicide. In 2018, the average suicide rate (per 100,000) was 27.9 in northwest Saskatchewan, compared to the provincial average of 18.7.
The new provincial plan includes public-awareness efforts aimed at northern Indigenous youth, and is intended to complement “broader activities” laid out in Saskatchewan’s Mental Health and Addictions Action Plan.
“We want to make sure people know help is available for those who may be thinking about suicide,” Kaeding said.
“The Saskatchewan Health Authority and many community partners are contributing to this work. We all recognize the need to do more.”
The rejection by legislature happened on the same day that Premier Scott Moe announced an inquest into the death of Samwel Uko whose body was found in Wascana Lake last month. Uko's family said he was turned away from the hospital where he went to seek mental health treatment.
Meili said that in light of the ongoing crisis, compounded by the recent death of Samwel Uko now is the time to act and promised to continue pushing for a bill.
“There’s no excuse for foot-dragging and inaction — it’s time for a government committed to improving mental-health supports for Saskatchewan families,” Meili said.
Vermette told Canada's National Observer after the province announced its plan, that it doesn't go far enough. He said the plan should be followed up by provincewide, binding legislation as proposed in his bill.
“There is definitely a difference between a bill and a plan. Unfortunately, they’ve announced that they’ve got a plan, instead of a bill with some law and with some legislation that’s given some teeth,” Vermette said.
If you are or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, help is available at all hours. Support can be found at the Canada Suicide Prevention Service website. If you are in immediate danger, you can call 911.
Michael Bramadat-Willcock/Local Journalism Initiative/Canada's National Observer